MLS weekend preview: Conference leaders, surging Galaxy take to NBC, NBCSN

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After a weekend of spreading out the fun, MLS is back to its normal routine: an appetizer, a huge main course, and a little Sunday chaser. And is if to apologize for the neglect, the league’s schedule makers have managed to spread out the Saturday kickoffs.

With three matches across NBC’s networks, here’s a look at the upcoming weekend in Major League Soccer.

NBCSN’S FRIDAY NIGHT GAME
Sporting Kansas City vs. Philadelphia Union, Friday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

When it happened, it was the most unexpected result of the season, a stumbling Union without Maurice Edu ending its nine-match winless run in Kansas. In hindsight, May’s 2-1 win is only slightly less perplexing. Thanks to a surge over the last two months, a previously dormant Union is in a playoff race. Ce la vie in the East, but after going into Sporting as one of the weakest teams in the East, Philadelphia’s managed to salvage its season.

Sporting, however, are back on top of the conference, defying the team’s absences and injuries to edge ahead of D.C. United in the East. But thanks to Matt Besler’s red card suspension, Friday’s game may force Peter Vermes to go back to improvising in defense.

Despite that intrigue, the battle at the other end of the field may prove more interesting. Philadelphia is using Maurice Edu and Ethan White in central defense, two players who haven’t logged much time in the middle this season, let alone with each other. Against a player with Dom Dwyer’s work rate, the duo will get a number of chances to make mistakes. In the last seven games, Philadelphia’s given up 11 goals.

source: Getty ImagesEARLY KICKOFF … ON NBC
LA Galaxy vs. Portland Timbers, Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Eastern, NBC

Portland may be on the up, its two-game winning streak bringing them back into the West’s playoff picture, but Monday’s result put LA on a different level. With the Galaxy’s 3-0 win in Seattle, Bruce Arena’s team has shown its first sign of competing for another title. We knew the talent was there, but now, the results are there, too.

With Robbie Keane (right) matched up against a Portland defense that conceded twice to Montréal, those results seems set to continue on Saturday, but under Caleb Porter, the Timbers have done a good job of restraining LA’s stars. In five games against Bruce Arena, Porter’s Portland teams have only conceded four goals.

That may leave the game close enough for Diego Valeri to steal. Two weeks ago, a late Valeri goal from beyond the penalty area delivered a one-goal win over Colorado, and last week, another late tally from distance sunk Montréal. If LA doesn’t put Portland away early, the Timbers’ All-Star may extend his team’s winning run.

source: Getty Images

CANADIAN COMPLAINTS
Montréal Impact vs. Toronto FC, Saturday, 5:00 p.m. Eastern

The dismissal of Nick de Santis sends Montréal into a state of flux, a circumstance that casts the rest of 2014 as a rebuild. On both the administrative and technical sides, the Impact is reworking its front office, meaning any change that will happen between now and season’s end will be up to head coach Frank Klopas. As the Timbers showed last weekend, nobody should be scared about going into Montréal.

If you listened to this week’s news out of Toronto, however, you’d think the Reds were the team in free fall. Despite finishing up a man on Saturday against visiting Kansas City, both Michael Bradley (right) and head coach Ryan Nelsen chose to take the officials to task, sounding bitter, incredulous notes in the process. Had they not given up a late goal to a 10-man Sporting,  the officials may not have been seen as such a problem.

Thanks to the loss, Toronto’s 12 back of first, with a three-way tie for third in the East bringing more urgency to merely making the playoffs. With New York closing in, three points in Quebec’s a near-must.

source: Getty ImagesLEE VS. THIERRY
New York Red Bulls vs. New England Revolution, Saturday, 7:00 p.m. Eastern

Strong mid-week performances from each team make this one of the weekend’s more compelling, evenly matched games, but it’s still tempting to reduce this to a one-on-one battle, a showdown between two attacking stars who are among the league’s most important players to their teams.

That importance was evident on Wednesday in Foxborough, where Lee Nguyen (right) played a part in all three Revolution goals. And on the same night in Salt Lake, the casual elegance of Thierry Henry allowed New York to earn a point despite putting only one shot on target.

Those stars make each team’s defensive midfield all the more important, with New York seemingly having an advantage thanks to Dax McCarty, but if Kelyn Rowe can recapture his 2013 form, his ability to operate in front of defensive could draw some of McCarty’s attention. It could also pull Tim Cahill away from where he’s best: operating in the opposition’s penalty area.

source: Getty ImagesLIFE ON THE PLAYOFF FRINGE
Chicago Fire vs. Columbus Crew, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. Eastern

After nearly two months without a win, Columbus has won two in a row, a streak that nearly matches Chicago’s win total for the entire season. Yet thanks to an increasingly frustrating collection of ties, the Fire are still within reach of the playoffs. Again, ce la vie in the East.

The problem, in terms of aesthetics, comes when you try to answer one question: Is Chicago any good? Their inability to win games says no, but their unwillingness to lose games leaves the door open. At some point (perhaps when Jermaine Jones arrives), they may figure it out and make the small, late push they’ll need to claim a playoff spot.

For now, however, Columbus looks like the slightly better team, particularly with players like Bernardo Anor, Ethan Finlay, and Justin Meram helping Federico Higuaín (right) over the last two weeks. But given Chicago’s only lost five times this season, it would be foolish to suggest they can’t get something out of this one. Particularly at home.

source:  ROCKY MOUNTAIN REBOUND
Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake, Saturday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern

Colorado’s coming off a disappointing loss, but given the stars that didn’t start in New England, it’s unlikely the 3-0 result is the start of something big. Come Saturday, Dillon Powers (right) will be back, as will Vicente Sánchez. Though it’s unclear when Deshorn Brown will return, signs of life from Gabriel Torres help make up for the loss. Jeff Cassar won’t have Jay Heaps’ luck.

All of which may be secondary if Real Salt Lake play their game. On Wednesday against New York, last year’s Western Conference champions were back to their former selves, showing the type of persistent control that characterized the team under Jason Kreis. Thanks to Thierry Henry, the result wasn’t there, but they held a Red Bull side giving a decent performance to one shot on goal.

If RSL plays like that, the danger Brown can muster will be missed, but if Wednesday can’t be replicated, Colorado should put Foxborough behind them.

source: APTENSION AT THE TOP
San Jose Earthquakes vs. Seattle Sounders, Saturday, 10:30 p.m. Eastern, NBCSN

Over the last week, we’ve mentioned San Jose’s need to change its approach, but with Steven Lenhart struggling to return from a knee injury, the transformation has already begun. When Yannick Djaló partners Chris Wondowlowski (right) up top, Mark Watson’s team can’t rely on 2012’s approach, something that will give Seattle (and what’s expected to be a huge crowd at Levi’s Stadium) a different look. Cross and crash may be fading out.

But this game’s intrigue is all about Seattle. After falling apart in Monday’s first half against Los Angeles, the Sounders look like the same team that’s suffered scarring defeats at the end of the last three seasons. At this point, it’s not a question of whether collapses will come. It’s a matter of whether Seattle can overcome them.

While a win won’t quell all doubts, it will at least address the possibility that a collapse like last year’s will define another season.

source: APUNSTOPPABLE FORCE, MOVABLE OBJECT
Houston Dynamo vs. D.C. United, Sunday, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Univision Deportes

Quietly, and in the face of a lot of incredulity, D.C. United has put up the East’s best goal-per-game rate despite the fact nobody on the team has scored more than seven goals. That player, Fabián Espindola, is still working his way back from injury, but with Eddie Johnson (right) starting to look like his normal self (scoring in three straight games), it’s possible United’s attack has another gear.

Contrast that with the Dynamo, whose most glaring weakness is in defense. The team’s giving up a league-high 40 goals, an inexplicable rate for a Dom Kinnear side. The central defense has been a problem, and some issues with Tally Hall have started to surface, but it’s still not quite unclear why a defense that was above average in 2013 has completely fallen apart this season.

DaMarcus Beasley, expected to debut on Sunday, should help, as will Luis Garrido, though playing in Houston may have Sunday’s biggest effect on D.C.’s surprisingly potent attack.

source:  TOROS STARTING TO BURN
Chivas USA vs. FC Dallas, Sunday, 10:00 p.m. Eastern

At one time July’s darlings, Chivas USA has lost two in a row, a turn that wouldn’t be so disturbing if the team wasn’t also out-scored 6-1. Back at home, and presumably ready to put veterans like Mauro Rosales back in the lineup, Wilmer Cabrera’s team should improve, but the halcyon days of July 2014 will be gone by Sunday’s kickoff.

That should give Óscar Pareja’s team room to continue its charge. Unbeaten in six, FCD has done remarkable job of overcoming injury (Mauro Díaz, right) and suspension (Fabían Castillo) to stay in the West’s top five. Now that the team’s starting to reassemble, Dallas may be ready to take aim at teams farther up the table. Real Salt Lake is only three points away, while Seattle’s threatening to come back to the pack.

That’s what makes games like these so important. A draw on the road in Carson, Calif., isn’t a bad in absolute terms, but considering every other team in the West’s top five has another visit to Chivas USA, Sunday’s result takes on a relative importance. If Dallas doesn’t get three points at StubHub, another team will.

Transfer Rumors: Seri to Arsenal; Vagnoman to Chelsea

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Nice’s Jean Seri is reportedly Unai Emery’s first target as Arsenal boss.

A report from the Daily Mail states that Seri, 26, is available for $46 million and although both Chelsea and Borussia Dortmund are interested, the Ivorian midfielder is a long-time target of the new Arsenal boss.

[ MORE: Top takeaways from Emery’s unveiling

Seri almost signed for Barcelona in the past and Emery tried to sign him in January while he was in charge of PSG.

The defensive midfielder is in the N'Golo Kante mould, but slightly more attack-minded than Kante. He has an incredible engine, exceptional reading of the game and is able to protect the ball while also starting attacks with surging runs on the ball. Yep, that’s the type of player who would thrive at Arsenal.

Seri’s arrival would also be much-needed following Santi Cazorla leaving after a two-year injury nightmare, plus Jack Wilshere out of contract on July 1 and likely to leave the Gunners. With Granit Xhaka‘s big-money arrival never quite working out, especially defensively, Seri could be a key part of the jigsaw in Emery’s rebuild as he can keep the ball and also spark the new high-pressing style the Spaniard wants to say.


Teenage defender Josha Vagnoman is being linked with a move to Chelsea, Arsenal and Everton, according to multiple outlets.

A report from ESPN states that the 17-year-old Hamburg full back (the second youngest player in Bundesliga history) will move on this summer and clubs across Europe are lining up to sign the German youth international as his contract with recently relegated Hamburg ends in July.

Vagnoman is interesting Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig but the report claims Arsenal have the edge due to their new head of recruitment, Sven Mislintat, keeping a close eye on his countryman over the years. Vagnoman is able to play left or right back.

Joining the likes of Arsenal, Bayern and Chelsea would likely mean a few years in the reserve squad for Vagnoman, while he could well play soon for either Dortmund or Leipzig given their penchant for giving youth a chance in their first team.

Argentina goalkeeper Romero out of World Cup with injury

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero will miss the World Cup because of a right knee injury.

The Argentine soccer federation says the Manchester United reserve may need surgery.

Romero was one of the three goalkeepers chosen by Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli for the 23-player squad he will take to the World Cup in Russia. Franco Armani and Wilfredo Caballero were also named in the squad.

Romero was a starter for Argentina at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.

The federation says Sampaoli will announce a substitute for Romero in the coming days.

VIDEO: Brandi Chastain explains Hall of Fame plaque blunder

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Brandi Chastain had a strange day on Monday.

The U.S. women’s national team legend, who won two Olympic golds and two World Cups during her iconic playing career, was inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

But when she unveiled her plaque, well, it got weird. Really weird.

Instead of a bronze image of Chastain’s face on the plaque, there was an image of what looks like an elderly man grimacing. Several media outlets have speculated as to who the face on the plaque actually is, with Gary Busey, Louie Anderson, John Goodman, a hint of Bill Belichick, and Mickey Rooney frontrunners according to Deadspin.

Take a look at the video below as Chastain appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel show to explain what happened.

Needless to say, the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame are going to get Chastain’s plaque redone.


Key takeaways: Emery’s first Arsenal press conference

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Unai Emery was unveiled as the new head coach of Arsenal on Wednesday and the Spanish coach spoke to the media at the Emirates Stadium soon after the news was official.

[ MORE: Emery “first choice” ]

The former PSG, Sevilla and Valencia coach spoke in limited English and answered some questions in his native tongue as he explained his vision for the Gunners AW (after Wenger) while sat alongside Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis.

Below is a look at five key takeaways from Emery’s first presser as Arsenal officially have a new boss for the first time in almost 22 years.


Emery was Arsenal’s “first-choice” replacement for Wenger

Gazidis revealed that there was an eight-man shortlist for the job and all eight were interviewed and kept their hats into the ring until the end. Emery was also the unanimous “first choice” selection and was interviewed on May 10 before being recommended to the board on May 18, then flying to Atlanta, Georgia, on May 22 to meet with Stan and Josh Kroenke before meeting the media. The fact that Mikel Arteta had seemed such a strong contender until Monday was perhaps a smokescreen before Emery was selected. The Spaniard has an impressive resume and no coach in Europe has won more than his eight major trophies in the last five years, which included three successive Europa League titles at Sevilla. At the age of 48 he has worked at huge clubs with big expectations and has delivered at each, apart from PSG being chucked out of the Champions League last 16 to Barcelona and Real Madrid in the last two seasons.


The style of play will remain similar but “intensive pressing” will arrive

And this is maybe the main reason why Emery was first choice. Tactically Emery is quite different to the style Wenger created at Arsenal and there can be some clear, and healthy, progression while still sticking with the possession-based style.

Asked about Arsenal’s possession-based game and some of the counter-attacking tactics he has used during his career, Emery seems keen to not tweak too much with the way the team plays currently but he is further aligned to the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino with the way he sets his teams up.

“In my career I am very demanding of myself as well as the people at the club and the players. The history here is one thing, they love to play with possession of the ball,” Emery said. “I like this personality and when we don’t have the ball I want a squad to play with intensive pressure. Two important things are position of the ball and pressing when you haven’t got it.”

High-pressing with plenty of possession? Sign me up to watch that.


There will be funds to spend

In the media there’s been a figure of around $75 million being available for Emery to spend this summer on building a new squad. Although Gazidis wouldn’t confirm if that was true, he did state the following when it comes to money being spent on new players.

“We don’t discuss our finances publicly but we run ourselves on a very clear and transparent model. Anyone who wants to look at our accounts can do so. All of the money has always been available to our manager and that will carry on,” Gazidis said.

Okay, that was a little tetchy but it does mean there should be some significant funds available to spend if the past two years are anything to go by with Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi, Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all arriving. Emery’s main area of concern will be in central midfield and in central defense, so, not much changes in terms of their main needs, recruitment wise.


Small changes to the squad are coming up

When asked if the likes of Jack Wilshere will stick around despite being out of contract on July 1, Emery was quite eager to focus on the bigger picture.

That said, the Spanish coach said that there will be changes but didn’t seem to think plenty of ins and outs were needed.

“We think we need change, little things, a little players but I don’t want to talk individually about the players. This is a big team and today I want to work and speak globally for the squad,” Emery said. “This is a big project and I am proud to be here and to work after Arsene Wenger. We want to work on this club together. I know my ambition and my passion and to know how I want to grow up with Arsenal. All the conversations I have had with the club shows we share the same vision for the club.”

Emery hailed Mesut Ozil as “one of the biggest talents at Arsenal” but you have to wonder if Ozil and others will align with Emery’s tactics as he enjoys setting up solid defensively and hitting opponents on the counter.


His English isn’t great, which may be a good thing

Props to Emery for having a go at speaking in English and taking questions but it is clear that it will take quite some time for the Spaniard to express himself fully in the English language. And that may actually work in his advantage. Remember Mauricio Pochettino at Southampton, then Tottenham? The Argentine didn’t have a single press conference in English for his first 18 months in the Premier League and that allowed him to absorb the culture and feel his way into the PL. Emery is already way ahead of Pochettino in that respect and even if Arsenal’s fans are looking for instant answers in every single press conference, it’s unlikely Emery will deliver them simply because he has yet to master the English language. That could well lead to more patience from fans (these are Arsenal fans though) and Emery will be able to give simpler answers due to the fact that he won’t be able to understand what a lot of journalists are asking. Or at least that’s the way he can play it when tough questions come around early on…